Riesling Renaissance

Riesling Renaissance

Why is Riesling, a noble grape capable of producing thrillingly pure wines with tingling acidity, and laser beam fruit so often overlooked? Jo Lory spoke to top Rheingau producer Theresa Breuer about how a new generation are bringing a fresh perspective to the grape, what to expect from Riesling from different regions, and the stunning 2019 vintage.

Weingut Georg Breuer was founded in 1880 and owns some of the most prized vineyards in the Rheingau. After World War II the estate made the decision to focus on quality, and making their own wines, rather than selling grapes. Bernhard Breuer was a real ambassador for Riesling, playing an important role in restoring the grape's respectability in world markets after the lost Liebfraumilch years. His daughter Theresa, who took over at the age of 18, is continuing that tradition.

While for many of us the past year has meant a change of rhythm, for winemakers the seasons and the work in the vineyard continues as normal. Theresa Breuer, one of the most energetic winemakers I've met, has used this year, when she couldn't do her usual travelling, to focus a bit more at home.

Rethinking Riesling

Many people in the UK still have a view of German white wine as off-dry, slightly insipid, as a hangover from the tides of Blue Nun in the 80s.

I asked Theresa how she goes about changing hearts and minds about German wine and Riesling in particular.

"There was a huge market and a big demand for these wines, people were obviously drinking and enjoying them! However they didn't help people step up [to higher quality German wines]. Liebfraumilch was based on a quality idea - the sweet wines Germany was historically known for - and it's up to us to bring quality wines back.

"When you speak to wine professionals, who work with food for pairings, they love Riesling. It's on us to transfer that to the consumer".

"It was a smart move around 30 years ago to focus on dry wines, the opposite of what German wines were known for. Riesling is a great grape to showcase dry, pure wines that stand out for their origin. Germany has such a long history with Riesling and the grape is identified with us. So we have to keep delivering the quality, make sure the wines are as good as we want them to be".

Generation Riesling

Change in wine regions often comes with a generational change of stewardship. Today's winemakers are well educated, well-travelled, and have often worked vintages in other regions. In Germany they have a programme called Generation Riesling, for producers under 35, aimed at celebrating exponents of ‘the new Germany’.

Theresa is part of Generation Riesling, I asked her what fresh ideas this group are bringing to German wines.

"The most positive thing is that the generation coming now has a much wider knowledge. They've tasted wines from all over the world, seen other ways of producing wine, and they're confident about what they can do. Understanding our own individual experience is so important. The biggest change is the acceptance of us as producers who can be part of the quality wine game, on our own individual terms.

"It's a more open-minded generation, that loves Riesling, and so plays with it in a slightly different way".

"If you have that feeling you start to think differently, establish new ideas. We see the potential due to our tradition and history, we just have to deliver quality and the personality behind the wines".

A sense of place

Riesling is renowned for expressing the region and soils on which it's grown. I asked Theresa to explain how Rheingau Riesling compares to the Mosel, Austria and Alsace.

Vineyards in the Mosel, like Rheingau, are on steep south-facing slopes of the river, where they catch the maximum sunshine in this cool region.

"Rheingau is a cool region, compared to Austria or Alsace, we're further north, and this is something you taste in our wines. But also in our region, and Rheingau is really tiny only 3,300 hectares, we're situated on the right bank of the river Rhein where it changes direction. Due to the geology the river takes a curve, and the vineyards have a southern exposure. This allows us to build more flavour and ripeness in our grapes, due to the sunshine we get”.

Theresa on Rheingau Riesling: "They're traditionally dry, with fruitiness, a minerality from the slate and quartite soils, balanced by acidity".

"Mosel wines are a bit tighter with fresher acidity, and traditionally a tiny touch sweeter to balance the acidity. This is something we don't need because we have a natural balance in our wine. But we're still north so we don't reach 13% alcohol like hey often do in Austria and Alsace making their wines richer".

Climate change is a concern for winemakers. I asked Theresa how she sees it affecting her vineyards and how they are dealing with it.

"We've learned that it doesn't work to work against nature, you have to find ways to adapt, it's a lot about reaction. In recent years the seasons haven't followed their calendar timing. So we have to be flexible, work with these new conditions we're having to face.

"Lower rainfall is a bigger concern for us than increasing temperature. Riesling is fine developing in a slightly higher temperature range and we can adapt to more sun using canopy management. But we don't have an answer yet for the lack of water, we're considering irrigation in the steepest sites to encourage vines to establish deeper roots which can access more water themselves.

“Being organic brings a calmer spirit and balance into things. The closer you work with nature at all levels, the vines have an inner strength, they're not waiting for chemical help”.

2019 - vintage of the century?

The 2019 vintage was challenging in the vineyard but has received amazing reviews. James Suckling asked: is 2019 Germany's 100 pint vintage? Calling it: the best vintage I have ever tasted for German Riesling in my four-decade career. We're delighted to have a section of 2019 Georg Breuer wines on The Sourcing Table. Does Theresa think it lives up to the hype?

"It was another dry warm year [as was 2018], so the vines didn't have water resources left. And we had heat peaks, over 40 degrees at times. We could see parts of the grapes were burned even though we tried to cover them with the leaves, it was tough, hard to see our vines fighting. In the end the grapes were tiny and extremely concentrated. We had very intense flavours in the grapes, and harvest was later so it was a nice balance of acidity which you keep better with later, cooler harvests.

"We had high acidity with a lot of concentration, but low yields, half of what we picked in 2018. The wines have a lot of structure, intensity, they're probably great for ageing.

"It's a classic Riesling year for flavour and intensity and acidity in the wines. It's a vintage for Riesling lovers".

"2018 is a great door opener if you're just starting to get to know Riesling, it's more gentle. But 2019 is the vintage to follow".

When I visited Theresa in 2018 she explained about the patchwork of parcels of vines they own. Depending on how warm or cool, wet or dry a vintage is different plots thrive. Theresa and her team vinify and keep each plot separate, giving them a palette for their final blending. Had any of the Crus performed particularly well in 2019?

Breuer vineyards in Rheingau. Map of their parcels.

"There's not one star in 2019. They're all so loaded, they carry their character and typicity very well this year. Berg Rottland is more fruit driven and opens up a little earlier. Schlossberg is the warmest plot and develops an intense ripeness, it's a little more creamy and rounder, but extremely mineral. 2019 is a year that points out the nerve and soul of the different sites".